Composer Spotlight Keith J. Robinson
A Talk with James Grant
Keith J. Robinson: When did you first understand, or maybe embrace is a better word, the idea that you were a composer, and what or who triggered your understanding?
James Grant: When I was 10 years old and a choirboy at Old St Paul’s Church in Baltimore, MD, I had an epiphanic experience. As I was processing up the chancel for the very first time-it was a huge church, with a huge pipe organ, and I was dressed up in major-league Episcopal choirboy vestments-I was completely overtaken by the power of the sound: the organ, the resonance of the building, the hundreds of people singing…. What went through my head was “I want to make this stuff happen!” I remember wanting to build something big with sound, though I had absolutely no idea what that meant at the time.
KR: Approximately (or exactly) how many pieces have you written?
JG: I have no idea; I don’t keep a listing of what I’ve composed over the years. A couple hundred works, I suppose, some in versions arranged for other instruments or for other instrumental configurations. Lots, in any case. In truth, I’m more concerned with what the next piece will be, not with what has come before. As one of my teachers, Steven Stucky, once said, “It’s all just one big piece, anyway.” I love that.
KR: I suspect your musical influences are pretty diverse. Could you share three of your top influences?
JG: My influences are many, so you’re putting me on the spot… In the running for the top three influences are Bartok, Shostakovich, Britten, Barber, Copland, and Coltrane, Parker, Miles, Monk, Dizzy, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Weather Report, and Led Zeppelin, Cream, Earth Wind & Fire, and Bacharach-David, the Gershwins, Sondheim, Arlen, and Cole Porter. But I’d have to say that my three top influences, in no particular order, have been and continue to be Stravinsky (spontaneity, eccentricity, humor and the pacing of narrative), singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell (organically brilliant melodic structure, exquisite harmonic nuance from open tunings on the guitar), and Steely Dan-Walter Becker and Donald Fagan-from the ’70s right up to today. In fact, from Becker and Fagan I learned, believe it or not, some of the most important concepts of orchestration that are in my toolbox. Their recordings are brilliantly produced, and I often invoke their music when I give master classes in composition.
KR: Are there any styles, forms, or genres with which you would like to work that haven’t yet made it into your body of work? If so, what might be standing in your way?
JG: I feel free to draw on pretty much any genre that helps bring about whatever musical expression is trying to make its way out, and I especially enjoy putting my own spin on tonality. Thirty to forty years ago, “serious composers” in academe avoided like the plague any kind of “accessible” diatonic-inflected language. Back then, the focus was on the composer’s heady intellectual process rather than on working within (yet still stretching) the aesthetic context brought to the concert hall by players and lay listeners. Happily, what tended to be an egocentric and elitist approach has evolved over the past several decades (for many, but not all composers), and as a group, composers seem to have become more desirous of creating a common connection and working closely with players and an audience, rather than inadvertently (or perhaps consciously) frustrating and alienating them. This is decidedly not about composers dumbing down; this is about composers smartening up (IMHO).
KR: Which pieces that you’ve composed are you particularly pleased with, or proud of?
JG: One piece I am particularly pleased with is Waltz for Betz, my 1999 Valentine’s Day card to my not-yet-then spouse, Elizabeth Siegfried (we got married five years later). I had the flu at the time, with a fever of 100+, and I couldn’t get out to buy Betz a card, so I wrote her a 5 1/2 minute “love poem” composition for solo piano instead. It now exists in a variety of recital and concert arrangements, all requested by instrumentalist friends. Tim Buzbee recorded it for tuba and piano on his Albany-Troy CD, Angels and Demons. Tubist Jim Shearer is about to record Waltz for Betz in a version for tuba with string quartet on his new CD. Clarinetist William Helmers and the principal strings of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra have recorded it in a version for clarinet with string quintet (High Autumn, Potenza Records). A horn player on the West coast, Laura Brenes, is releasing it in a version for horn and string quintet next spring, and it’s been recorded by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Australia in its version for viola and string orchestra (that recording gets played frequently on ABC Radio, especially during rush hours to calm road rage, I assume).
KR: Is there anything on the other end of the spectrum? Maybe a piece that seemed great at the time, but perhaps doesn’t match the level of composing you are producing today.
JG: When I was studying at Cornell for my doctorate, I thought I’d be cool and write a contemporary work for harpsichord. It completely sucked.
KR: Are you able to attend many premiere performances of your pieces?
JG: I love being able to attend performances of my music, premieres or otherwise, and recently I’ve begun doing residencies at colleges or universities that orbit around student and faculty concerts of my music. In the last year, I’ve had great times attending performances and teaching/lecturing at New Mexico State University, University of Arizona, Pima Community College (Tucson), University of South Florida, Morehead State University, and Murray State University. Having left academe 20 years ago to compose full-time, I have missed teaching more than I ever would have imagined-so these welcome residencies get me away from the desk and back into the lecture halls and classrooms where I give master classes to instrumental studios as well as composers. I often give lectures about the business of being a composer in the marketplace.
KR: Is there one premiere performance that really sticks out in your mind?
JG: Professionally, the most memorable premier performance was of my 45-minute choral symphony, Such Was The War. It is based on the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman, was commissioned by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and was premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with a 200-voice chorus and big orchestra (triple winds) made up of players from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
KR: How did your first premiere affect you?
JG: The first piece I ever had performed was at a church service on Christmas Eve, 1974. I was 20 years old. It was an anthem for SATB and organ based on “Greensleeves,” and I was absolutely hooked on composing from then on.
KR: Can you describe your physical work environment, your composing space?
JG: My wife (who is a fine-art photographer) and I live and work in two locations: Oxtongue Lake, Ontario (3 hrs north of Toronto); and Siesta Key, FL. When it gets too bloody cold in Canada, we head south and when it gets too bloody hot in Florida, we head north.
My northern and southern studios pretty much mirror each other. I typically work between 10-12 hrs a day, six days a week (frequently seven). I take my desktop computer with me when I’m driving south or north, (a 4-year old Mac Pro with multiple monitor capability) and I keep three 20-inch Acer monitors at each location-I’ve found I really need the acreage for the way I do my work. I’m a Finale geek and have digital pianos at both locations for input of music (in Ontario it’s a Kurzweill; in FL, a Kawai console). I keep a webcam fired up for conferences, attending rehearsals, teaching, visiting with friends and colleagues, and checking in frequently with my publisher, Potenza Music. As an aside, I subscribe to two crucial online services that keep me company during my long days at the desk: Live 365 internet radio (cheap, and there’s a great bossa nova station called “Bossa Nova Breakfast”) and Medici.TV, which features HD broadcasts of concerts and music festivals from around the world. There are times when I need the “distraction” of that music to help me focus on editing and creating my own music.
KR: Would you please share any interesting compositional “triggers”? Ideas that caught your imagination in some way, maybe causing you to start work on a new piece, or perhaps a new concept.
JG: This is a tough one. I’m always in receptive mode, always ready to begin the next project, and I’m inspired by just about everything around me from the hot curried
KR: You’ve recently completed a new, outstanding addition to the tuba solo repertoire entitled Not Your Normal Set of Etudes: 10 Blind Dates for Solo Tuba. Please describe this work, and tell a little bit about how it came to be.
JG: I spent the better part of 2011 and 2012 designing a comprehensive business model with Pat Stuckemeyer, the owner of Potenza Music, who publishes all my music. At the core of the plan is a dynamic five-year initiative called the “Songs Without Words” project. I am composing between six and ten new university and professional-level recital and chamber pieces each year (rotating through all the woodwind, brass and string instruments) with each piece being commissioned by a consortium of instrumentalists who, upon pre-purchasing the composition on the Potenza website for its retail cost, become official Commissioners of the work, with their names emblazoned in the published hardcopy. It’s as simple as that. For each piece, I tap on the shoulder of a close friend and colleague to become the Lead Commissioner (a.k.a. Lead Cheerleader) of the new work. I knew I wanted the inaugural piece, Songs Without Words No. 1 (May 2013) to be for unaccompanied tuba. I asked my younger colleague, kickass tuba player and great pal Chris Combest, who wrote a fine dissertation on my tuba music, to be the Lead Commissioner. Eighty-four tubists from around the world joined the Consortium, and I’m grateful to be receiving PDFs of recital programs emailed to me as each Commissioner gives their premier performance of the work. As for the music itself, it’s unabashedly programmatic and is meant to be lots of fun for both the tubist and the audience. There are two versions that come with the set: the original for university-level player, and a “gussied up,” more technically-challenging version for advanced players and professionals. I had a blast writing this music for my many tubist friends, and Chris Combest was extremely helpful taking the sketches for a spin and offering technical advice.
KR: Any blind date experiences of your own you’d like to share…?
JG: Absolutely not!
KR: You’ve spoken very eloquently about the importance of performers and composers connecting with one another. Why do you feel this connection is so important?
JG: As I mentioned earlier, I am a composer who does not work in a vacuum; rather, I prefer and welcome collaboration directly with performers to create relevant musical events for them and their audiences, whether it’s for a university recital or a professional concert hall. In a very real sense, we create the piece together, as two sides to an equation that is emerging and trying to find “just the right” balance. It’s especially fun for me when this is combined with me doing a residency at a college or university.
KR: Would you please explain, for those who may not know, the importance of letting composers know of performances of their works, and the importance of actually sending a physical or electronic copy of performance programs to composers?
JG: I’m so grateful you asked this question, for me and for all of us living composers! This topic is not addressed often enough, and I’ve lately become more publicly vocal about it and have been heartened by the concerned response of all of my instrumentalist colleagues and friends. It’s very important that I explain this clearly, so this is not a one-sentence response.
The fact is, we composers-especially those of us who choose not to hold full-time academic positions-cobble together our self-employed incomes from a variety of sources as we go about the business of doing what we love to do most: composing music for you, and getting it onto your music stands.
It is crucial to our income stream that we be able to prove to our performing rights organizations, otherwise known as a PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN), that we are indeed having performances, and often multiple performances, of this music we write for you. That proof comes in the form of PDFs or hardcopies of recital and concert programs that we send in to the PRO. Upon seeing proof of the performances, the PRO awards us credit, which then yields a performance royalty-at no cost to you, because your university or orchestra pays an annual blanket licensing fee to each of the PROs for the right to perform the music licensed within its catalogue.
When I receive a handful of recital programs and can forward them on to my PRO (which happens to be ASCAP) the resulting performance royalties can cover a week’s worth of groceries or a significant portion of the monthly mortgage. No kidding. Think of it this way: each and every performance we do not hear about represents lost income to us-income that we are entitled to receive from our PROs (again, at no cost to you). For example, when you or your students perform even a 5-minute recital piece of mine on a program, I am entitled to a royalty payment that, depending on the performance context, can be between $50-100. When we do not hear about these performances, the losses really add up.
And this is precisely where many of us composers who do this for a living face a frustrating conundrum: We know we are having our music performed almost daily in colleges, universities and conservatories around the world, yet we have no way of finding out about the vast majority of these performances unless we hear directly from you, the performer, who honors us by learning and performing our music.
Thank goodness it’s as simple as you attaching a PDF to an email or selecting a file from your desktop and clicking an upload button (my new website, to be launched in early 2014, will have this feature). Where it once took a musician 15 minutes to inform a composer of a performance through snail mail, it now takes 15 seconds online-three cheers for technology, I say. And three cheers for you, especially!-for taking those 15 seconds to send off your recital program. We are indeed truly grateful and it allows us to keep composing music for you.
KR: What compositional irons do you currently have in the fire?
JG: I have too many compositional irons in the fire to tell you about all of them (and I’ll save one specific one, “the best,” for last).
I’m always planning at least a year in advance, and there are usually about a dozen new projects in play at a given time. In my calendar for the earlier-mentioned Songs Without Words (sww) project, I’ve got sww03 for trio d’anches (oboe, clarinet, bassoon) coming up in January, sww04 for clarinet choir in February, and sww05 for viola and piano in March. For this month (December 2013) I’m honored to be composing a new tuba quartet for members of Jim Self’s studio at USC, the USC Bass Tuba Quartet. I’ve just finished a Grade 4/5 band piece for a consortium of 26 high school and university bands and there’s a similar project on deck for Grade 6 band next year, which I hope will become a competition piece. I’m also orchestrating my new alto saxophone concerto and preparing a chamber orchestra version of my choral symphony, Such Was The War. Something many of my colleagues and friends aren’t aware of is that I have a songwriting partner, professional lyricist, and celebrated teacher of songwriting, Debra Alexander ( www.WordMavenMusic.com). We are both dedicated teachers and have recently begun composing a series of Grade 3 middle school band pieces for Potenza Music under the nom de plume “Alison Stuart” (our middle names). Stay tuned for more information on that! Our collaboration also will spawn a series of engaging recital pieces to be published by Potenza Music.
But the compositional project that’s most on my mind right now is a big secret, Keith-I’ll tell you about it here, but you have to keep it under your hat, OK? <…nudge nudge, wink wink…> Mark Nelson is going to be my Lead Commissioner in convening a Potenza-sponsored consortium to commission “Three More Furies for Solo Tuba.” We’ll likely launch the project early in the new year, with the music to be sent to the Commissioners late-summer, in time to program for fall semester recitals and concerts. I’m super excited about getting to the desk for this project!
KR: What music have you been listening to over the last, say, two or so weeks?
JG: Bossa Nova, pretty much all day long, quietly in the background. Brazilian Portuguese has to be the sexiest language on earth (I do not understand a word of it) and the rhythmic/harmonic palette that supports it lights up something fundamental in my DNA. I’m completely enchanted by it.
KR: When young composers ask you for advice or ideas, what do you offer them?
JG: Much depends on their age, experience and artistic trajectory, but here are just a few thoughts off the top of my head:
-Always be appreciative and learn as much as you can from those who play your music.
-If you don’t already enjoy it, learn to enjoy coffee.
-You don’t have to be a creative genius in every measure-just a couple measures will do, then develop those measures with craft.
-Always ask for direct and honest feedback from everyone-that’s the way you develop a sense of how your artistic self merges with the reality of the marketplace.
-If a player tells you the music is too hard, it probably is. Ask the player for suggestions that will not sacrifice your musical intent. That said, learn how to compromise (not sacrifice) your musical intent if need be. That’s just common sense.
-Capitalize on the years of training your players have had by not asking them to stray too far from what they are capable of doing on their instruments. Challenge is fine; struggle is not.
-If someone offers a criticism about your music and it makes you angry, it likely means the criticism has validity. If they say, “I just don’t like it,” you should find out why.
-If you want to make a living as a composer, you’ve got to be organized and you have to know how to create and execute a business plan. You have to want to work with people toward a common goal. Most importantly-this is not about YOU. It’s about the music, the players, and the audience for whom you’re writing. Take your work very seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
-Good composition is about micromanaging an audience’s experience of time in such a way that they are riveted to that experience. If you see audience members shuffling their program notes, yawning, or sending text messages, you’ve got some serious work to do which may include considering a new line of work.
-Always honor and acknowledge the great privilege it is to be a composer working together with instrumentalists to create the ritual of performance. What a joy it is!
For three decades, James Grant has been commissioned by individuals, choruses, chamber ensembles and orchestras who have performed his music throughout the world. As a composer of choral music, he has taken First Prize honors in three international competitions, and his orchestral overture Chart won first prize in the 1998 Louisville Orchestra competition for new orchestral music. In 2002, Grant was one of five American composers to win the Aaron Copland Award; and in 2004, he won the Sylvia Goldstein Award, sponsored by Copland House.
After completing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition from Cornell University, Grant was Assistant Professor of Music at Middlebury College in Vermont between 1988-1992, where he taught composition, coordinated an American Music Week Festival each year, and directed the New Music From Middlebury concert series. In 1992, Grant left academe to compose full-time and from 1993-96 served as Composer-In-Residence to the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in Fairfax, Virginia. In 2003, Grant completed a five-year position as Composer-In-Residence to the Bay-Atlantic Symphony in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
Recognized by Cornell University’s Graduate School of Humanities and Arts and by the Vermont chapter of the National Music Teachers Association for exceptional contributions as an educator, Grant continues to be active as a lecturer and private teacher of composition.
Grant’s colorful musical language is known by musicians and audiences for its honed craft and immediacy. After the May 2003 Kennedy Center premiere of his 55-minute work for chorus and large orchestra based on the writings of Walt Whitman, Such Was The War, the Washington Times declared it “a work of outstanding power and breadth of emotion.” The Baltimore Sun wrote, “the sincerity is never in doubt, and there’s an unmistakable, cumulative power generated by the text and music. Such Was the War makes an honorable contribution to the choral repertoire.”
After the October 2004 premier of Grant’s Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commented on a follow-up performance by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra: “Grant here has made music that is structurally smart, emotionally probing, rhythmically clever and harmonically subtle…. The momentum builds to some hair-raising hyena howls that had the audience howling back in approval when the 15-minute concerto ended.”
The 2009 CD release of Grant’s recital music for viola (MS1335) by violist Michelle LaCourse. Chocolates, has generated universal praise, eliciting such comments as: “Grant creates a world in which the viola is completely at home, and thus can shine, yet he does it with a consistent, convincing language and a sure sense of compositional construction.”
Grant’s ability to compose music appropriate to specific levels of experience has found him working with groups ranging from professional orchestras, choruses, solo recitalists, new music ensembles and ballet companies to community choruses, university choral and instrumental ensembles, and youth orchestras. His music is regularly programmed at music festivals, symposia, and clinics; and his desire to design new music for a given repertoire has led to numerous successful consortium commissions.
Recent orchestral commissions have included Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, for virtuoso saxophonist David Stambler; Eja! Eja! for timpani, soprano solo, large chorus and orchestra for the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s 2005 Kennedy Center Holiday Concert; QUEST, a centennial celebration work for narrator and orchestra for the University of Mary Washington; and Scout, also for narrator and orchestra, for the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra, based on Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Other recent projects have included a chamber orchestra version of his choral symphony, Such Was The War, commissioned by the Choral Arts Society of Washington and premiered in March 2009 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC as part of the Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration; and his 2008 tba4tet, a chamber piece for two euphoniums and two tubas commissioned by a consortium of 48 individuals and quartets.
Recently, works by James Grant have been recorded by: the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra; the Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Eufonix Quartet; clarinetist William Helmers and the principal strings from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; tubist Mark Nelson; tubist Timothy Buzzbee; bassoonist Mary Stuckemeyer; and violist Michelle LaCourse. In the last several years, articles on Grant’s recital music have been featured in TUBA Journal and in the Journal of the American Viola Society.
Grant and his wife, fine-art photographer Elizabeth Siegfried, live and work in Oxtongue Lake, Ontario, and in Siesta Key, Florida.